I have often heard Christians decry the present state of the church, while looking back to the “Good ‘ole days.” The thinking goes something like this, “If we could just return to the first century, and live like the early church, then things would be much better.” At one point in my life I would hear such sentiment and I blithely assumed that it was correct.
No thank you.
The crux of the problem here, as I understand it, is trajectory. Many Christians think of the Bible as a kind of moral manual for how we are to live our lives. With this mindset, we therefore must return to the Bible’s beliefs, constructs, and teachings, in order to get it right. While this makes some sense for those who think about the Bible in this way, it actually creates many more problems, in other ways. For example, the Bible doesn’t advocate for the abolition of slavery. Does that mean it’s okay? Another example. While women have some prominence throughout the New Testament (I.e.: monetarily supporting Jesus, the first to announce his resurrection, etc.), they are clearly less empowered to lead and to teach, than men. At times, women are told that they cannot even speak. Does this mean that this is okay, biblical, and the desire of the divine? Is the trajectory of our lives – in order to live biblically – to truly return to first century church ways of thinking and living? The Year of Living Biblically, anyone?
Now, to be fair, many Christians who would like to return to the good ‘ole days have ways of dealing with these conundrums. They’ll talk about the differences between cultural truths and ethical truths and ceremonial truths and moral truths. They’ll split hairs by saying things like, “This idea was for Paul’s day, whereas this idea is very much for us today.” However, the problem with this line of reasoning is subjectivity. There is no agreed upon rubric for such decision making. Each person or church or denomination seems to be less than honest in stating that tradition and experience are deeply influencing biblical interpretation. This is something I’ll post about more, at another time. For now, I’ll simply point out that any trajectory pointing backward, to the good ‘ole days, is racked with problems.
I’d like to propose that we understand the Bible as a trajectory that is forever pointing us forward. Let me explain.
Gary Cutting, a philosopher at Notre Dame, writes in an article titled How Religion Can Lead to Violence, that violence in religion is often tempered by social mores. Using western Christianity as a case study he looks back and states that, overall, the church has been pulled forward by society’s sense of good. A couple examples could be racial equality or women’s rights. In general, the church lagged behind these good movements, until it could – due to society’s sense of human decency and justice – no longer do so. Therefore, Cutting concludes that society pulls religion forward. And in some ways he is right. But here’s the thing, it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, I don’t think it should be that way.
Consider a few passages from the Bible:
- Exodus 20:1-17, provided an ancient moral code.
- Numbers 35:6-15, demanded cities of refuge for those who accidentally killed someone to flee to and to dwell within so that the Revenger (yes this was an actual job title) could not exact revenge.
- Deuteronomy 21:10-14, established protocol allowing women who were captured in war to grieve for one month. Furthermore, if after taking a woman to bed the man found himself unhappy with the woman, he was prohibited from selling her and he was instructed to let her go wherever she wished. I know this is horrifying, but stick with me.
- Romans 14-15, differentiated between strong and weak consciences when it came to eating clean and unclean food and it encouraged acceptance of the “other.”
- Philemon, Paul wrote to a slave owner named Philemon and asked him to receive back a runaway slave named Onesimus, not as a slave, but as a brother.
Now, with these passages in mind, as terrible as they seem to us today, it should be observed that these were movements forward in the world. An ancient moral code in the midst of violent tribalism, was a movement forward. Refuge for the innocent when a Revenger was allowed to exact revenge, was a movement forward. Allowing space for a woman to grieve and to be set free as opposed to sold, was a movement forward. Making room for differences when it came to clean and unclean food, was a movement forward. Receiving back a runaway slave as a brother instead of as a slave, was a movement forward.
Now of course, these movements do not go far enough. How about just putting an end to the notion and role of a Revenger, or treating women as human beings instead of property, or making room for differences beyond clean and unclean food, or abolishing slavery altogether? Yes, of course! But you see, to do so would have been unconscionable. Such consciousness about human rights and dignity were beyond ancient Israel, the early church, and the apostle Paul. However, in their day and age, these movements were radical, good, compassionate, and beautiful steps forward.
Moving beyond specific examples, notice the progression of larger, biblical motifs:
- From Law (Exodus 20:1-17) to love (Matthew 5:38-39, 43-45)
- From obedience (Deuteronomy 27-28) to grace (Romans 3-8)
- From differences (Genesis 28) to similarities (Galatians 3)
- From chaos (Genesis 3-11) to cosmic shalom (Revelation 21-22)
You see, in contrast to Cutting’s thesis – that violence in religion is often tempered by social mores – what if Christianity’s part in violence is the result of limiting the moral arc of progress in the Bible to the Bible? That is to say, what if, instead of insisting on a return to the moral codes of the Bible, we were to understand that the Bible makes manifest a trajectory toward endless human growth, inclusion, and love?
We would never say, “Let’s go back to Numbers 35, or Deuteronomy 21.” However, many Christians often say, “Let’s go back to the early church.”
Making room for differences when it comes to clean and unclean food, is not good enough. It is not far enough. Welcoming Onesimus as a brother instead of as a slave, is not good enough. It is not far enough. Do you see? Too often we are looking the wrong way. The Bible is not calling us backward, into the past. The Bible is attempting to point us forward.
These are not movements that should frighten us and send us running back to the early church. No. These are divine movements in the world that we should laud, participate in, and give our entire selves to appreciate, for this – biblically speaking – is the trajectory of the divine.
I am therefore no longer willing to participate in a Christianity that is begrudgingly pulled forward by social mores. I desire to return to ancient roots. Roots grounded in provocative revolution that understand divine work in the world as any work cultivating ever-growing compassion, acceptance, love, and peace. And wherever it occurs? Whenever it occurs? I will point and declare, "There. There is the good work of God in the world!"